Rare win at Auburn boosts Kentucky’s confidence
Every time Kentucky coach Rich Brooks thinks about one particularly ugly statistic from his team’s latest effort, he grows more amazed this was the game that ended 43 years of futility against Auburn.
“If I’d have told you we would have thrown for 75 yards, you’d have thought, ‘They’re going to get killed,”‘ Brooks said Monday, two days after the Wildcats’ improbable 21-14 victory over the Tigers.
With starting quarterback Mike Hartline sidelined by injury, the burning question all week for Kentucky (3-3, 1-3 Southeastern Conference) was whether true freshman Morgan Newton or Will Fidler, a junior who had completed just three career passes before this year, would get the nod.
The answer was Newton, but when he struggled on Saturday, Fidler relieved him. While the pair completed a combined 9 of 22 passes for 75 yards, hardly sufficient to win through the air, the Wildcats found plenty of other ways to grind out a victory.
They committed no turnovers and turned in their first game since 1991 without a penalty.
They rushed for 282 yards, the most by a Wildcats team against an SEC opponent in 14 years, including rushing TDs from three different Kentucky players lined up under center – Newton, Fidler and Randall Cobb.
And their talented defense finally got an SEC breakout game, with 14 tackles apiece by linebackers Danny Trevathan and Micah Johnson, whose effort earned him SEC defensive player of the week honors.
“We’d been so close – just little things here and there, and we hadn’t gotten any breaks,” Johnson said. “It was a great win and the team was very excited.”
With one improbable win, things are suddenly looking rosier in Lexington for the Wildcats’ quest to reach a fourth straight bowl game.
They are now past the murderer’s row portion of the schedule, which started with Florida, Alabama and South Carolina – teams currently ranked No. 2, No. 1 and No. 23. Next up are foes that appear more beatable: Louisiana-Monroe, Mississippi State, Eastern Kentucky and Vanderbilt.
“We know we can be a good team, but we’ve just got to keep proving it,” offensive tackle Justin Jeffries said. “Everybody doesn’t believe just yet, so we’ve got to get everybody on the bandwagon.”
Brooks acknowledges that beating Auburn and ending one of his team’s “infamous streaks” is a significant accomplishment. However, stringing together victories has been more challenging, even in recent years when the program has won three consecutive bowl games for the first time ever.
He is finally seeing a change in the mindset for the better.
“We can make it happen,” Brooks said. “The old attitude that is so hard to shake, that you can’t get it done, no longer prevails on our football team.”
Junior offensive tackle Brad Durham said the Wildcats used to have problems letting leads slip away at the end. No more, he said.
“Now we’re turning the page,” Durham said. “We’re not the same old Kentucky anymore. We’re the Kentucky that is going to finish games.”
Brooks refuses to let his team’s confidence become cockiness. After all, when the Wildcats last played Louisiana-Monroe three years ago, they had to squeak out a 42-40 win – and that was with experienced quarterback Andre Woodson at the helm.
Newton will likely get the start again this week, Brooks said, although he acknowledges that is probably unfair to Fidler, who did a solid job calming down the offense in a relief effort. He expects both quarterbacks will split the action again, provided Fidler’s sore shoulder allows him to play.
Kentucky also has several other key players doubtful due to injury, including star cornerback Trevard Lindley and Derrick Locke, who rushed for a career-high 126 yards against the Tigers.
“As the old saying goes, this is a real football game,” Brooks said. “It is not going to be an easy thing, particularly for a team like us trying to establish a passing game again more similar to what we’re used to having.”
Still, Brooks admits things are looking a lot brighter now that the Auburn streak is a thing of the past.
“All last week it was gray and cold and wet, but an amazing thing happened Sunday morning,” he said. “The sun was out, vibrant colors on the trees. It’s amazing what a win will do for you.”